Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) figures out how to play nice with others in “The Avengers,” but our smug, self-assured hero finally learns humility in Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3.” For the first time Stark can’t come up with all the answers immediately, he’s not always wearing his armor, and he doesn’t have jokes for every occasion. His struggle is actually quite refreshing, and endearing because watching this cocky character become so humbled over the course of Black’s story, is more engaging than any epic act of heroism that Iron Man performs in the film.

Black’s Tony Stark is a darker, more thoughtful guy who starts to grasp how his reckless behavior endangers those he cares about. Not only does he get it, but he beats himself up about it on the inside, showing that the billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist does have a heart buried under his self-serving sarcasm. Wrapped up in Tony’s guilt is humorous self-loathing, a quality that Black enjoys infusing into his protagonists.

In fact, “Iron Man 3” has more in common with Black’s other movies than with previous entries in this franchise, which is another nice change of pace. As usual, Black borrows heavily from hardboiled detective tales to craft his narrative. There’s film noir narration with a self-aware quality reminiscent of the Black/Downey Jr. collaboration “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Like a rogue cop, Tony sets out to investigate mysterious explosions tied to The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and in the process, he gets roughed up by the bad guys. Speaking of his enemies, Stark is often forced to devise quick, creative ways to gain an advantage against them. And when it comes to stopping bad people in this picture, this Iron Man isn’t afraid to kill them, something that’s closer thematically to Black’s prior action flicks.

Throughout the entire film, you wonder why Stark is suddenly narrating to the audience, because he hasn’t done it before. At first you suspect that it’s just Black’s own preference, but if you stay through the end of the credits, a brilliant wrapper ties everything together. However the explanation behind why this tale is set during Christmas is not so clear. The only seemingly logical reasons are that Black likes to set his stories at that time of year and to give Tony an excuse to finally show his girlfriend Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) how much she means to him.  

If you fell in love with the “Iron Man” movies because of their huge action sequences, snappy one-liners, and gorgeous special effects, don’t worry. You’ll get plenty of that in “Iron Man 3.” And although those bits are incredibly entertaining, you’ll probably become more fascinated by the sides of Tony you’re not used to seeing like the anxiety ridden mess who has panic attacks, the sensitive guy who loves Pepper, and the one who befriends a kid (Ty Simpkins). Thankfully Stark doesn’t transform unrealistically into a total softie. He’s still kind of a hilarious dick.

If this movie suffers from any problem though, it’s that it tries to address too many themes in one story. Certain portions aren’t given the proper development like his newfound anxiety, his much stronger affection for Pepper, and his relationship with the kid. And despite my love for Shane Black’s specific buddy cop style, there are times when it feels forced unnecessarily to into this superhero model.

Perhaps the most poignant lesson in “Iron Man 3” comes when Tony discovers it’s not only important to rely on others for help in certain situations, but it’s necessary. He learns to get by with a little help from his friends, which isn’t exactly a bad thing. Although I loved the old arrogant Iron Man, I’m anxious to see what the new one wil be like in “Avengers 2” now that he’s a little more down-to-earth.

My Grade: in Bravo! Borderline Bodacious!